Tom Strini
2011 MFF

In “Kinshasa Symphony,” art trumps life

By - Sep 23rd, 2011 02:10 am

When violin strings broke, they made do with brake cables from a bicycles. When looting broke out and their instruments were stolen, they figured out how to make their own. When the lights fail, a violist puts down his instrument, climbs a pole and restores power. That’s life in Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, as chronicled by filmmakers Claus Wischmann and Martin Baers. Their inspiring documentary, Kinshasa Symphony, is featured in the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Kinshasa, home of nearly 10 million Congolese, is one of the largest and poorest cities in Africa. The streets are mud and dust. Everyday life is a struggle to survive. War has ravaged the country intermittently for decades.

And yet, about 200 citizens have taught themselves and one another to play instruments and read music. After long, hard days of work, they assemble nearly every night to rehearse together. They practice one their own wherever and whenever they can, as often as not out on the streets as trucks rumble by and curious onlookers pass.

Wischmann and Baer wrote no script. They simply allow some of these amateur musicians to tell their stories in their own words. They also follow them through their days, so we get authentic slices of central African urban life. We need no voice-over to tell us of their love for the music and their dedication; we see it in how they live.

Of course the film ends with a rousingly successful open-air concert, as thousands of Congolese applaud the only all-black symphony orchestra on earth. But the triumph isn’t them main thing, here. The main thing is the drive to make something beautiful amid the most difficult circumstances imaginable. These musicians don’t merely want to make music; they need to make music, they cling to it desperately as a haven. They make music the way water wears away rock or flowers push through cracked concrete. Nothing can stop them.

The insanity of this enterprise, started by a laid-off pilot turned conductor in 1994, is the essence of it. These 200 choristers and musicians have insisted on doing the impossible not only or the sake of beauty but also for the sake of doing the impossible. If you believe that you can perform Beethoven’s Ninth in spite of the chaos and poverty of Kinshasa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, maybe you can believe that Central Africa has a future other than war and misery.

Their pride in accomplishment is deeply touching, and all the more ennobled by Wischmann and Baers’ clear-eyed objectivity. They resisted any temptation for contrived Hallmark Moments. They let the story tell itself.

But like their subjects, the filmmakers make beauty amid squalor. The sound, all recorded in the field, is glorious. The filmmakers don’t glamorize this hellish city, but they show how even in Kinshasa people can make life decent through kindness and through striving toward art. You can see it also in the way the women dress and in the Congolese grace of carriage. But those things come naturally to them; Beethoven and Handel and Carl Orff and Verdi, all heard in this film, do not. And that makes these musicians all the more heroic.

Screenings of Kinshasa Symphony are at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept 24 at North Shore Cinema 2; 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at Ridge Cinema 2; and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Downer Theatre. Tickets are $10.

TCD’s Tom Strini will co-host the the MFF Conversation after the Downer Cinema screening on Tuesday. So do drop in.

Here is the link to more TCD coverage of the Milwaukee Film Festival.



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